By Lim Cheng Tju

Why political cartoons? Well, why not? Why so few in the art field have even considered political cartoons as a contemporary artform and a much neglected one at that? After all, if one of the aims of art criticism and commentary is to challenge our views and perceptions of what is art, why not comics and cartoons as art and culture?

Or is it that what is considered mass-based, a mass medium like comics and cartoons cannot be considered as art? If it is popular, is it not art? Wouldn't that be a narrow view of what art is and somewhat hypocritical as well? That art, with a capital A, is meant to be elitist and exclusive, to differentiate between what is high brow and what is low brow for the masses? Food for thought.

Now it is precisely because political cartoons reach out to the masses everyday in the newspapers that it is important and relevant to be considered by academic historians and art critics as sources, indicators and barometers of what is going on in society, politically or otherwise. Not everyone read the commentary pages or political analysis in the papers, but the political cartoon is immediate, succinct and crisp. Even the most causal reader will look at them and get the 'joke', the political situation.

After all, to quote Edward Said, "…politics is everywhere; there can be no escape into the realms of pure art and thought or for that matter into the realm of disinterested objectivity or transcendental theory." (Representations of The Intellectual) Now I know this can be a rather one-sided view of things, an over-generalised statement. But the way I see it, whether they are meant to be educational or whether they are intended for pure entertainment, most cartoons contain a certain measure of political bias or opinions due to the inherent satirical nature of the medium which lends itself to social criticism.

I would like to propose a new way of looking at the political cartoonist in society. Namely, Antonio Gramsci's theory of the organic intellectual operating in modern day society, taken from his Prison Notebooks. Organic intellectuals are different from the traditional intellectuals such as academics and scientists in the sense that they are much more involved in the everyday workings of society. For example, the journalists, writers, film makers, photographers, musicians, artists and cartoonists.

Therefore a political cartoonist is an organic intellectual, whether he or she knows it or not. They may not think of themselves as artists with a capital A. But what they draw is definitely of certain importance.


But getting back to our Singapore context. What political cartoons in Singapore? Precisely the same question I asked 2 years ago when I did my honours thesis on the history of political cartoons in Singapore from 1959 to 1995, primarily looking at the political cartoons that appeared in The Straits Times. This gave me an opportunity to mix both of my interests of study together - politics and popular culture.

Through the course of my research, during which I nearly went blind going through rolls and rolls of microfilm of old newspapers, I realise that there is a need to redefine the political cartoon in the Singapore context, which has evolved its own tradition and history. It is a tradition that is unique not just to our experience as an ex-British colony, but it also reveals to us something about ourselves, reflect our society and its encoded values.

It is a tradition that evolved out of the negotiation between the needs of a new nation, requiring its mass media to act as agents of social cohesion and the political space necessary for the creativity needed by the political cartoonists to do their job. In a way, our political cartoonists followed the guidelines of development journalism: to report impartially on a nation's development rather than being critical and analytical of the government's policies. Therefore, we don't have much political caricatures in our papers, now and then, because caricatures, even the positive ones, can be interpreted as mocking.


Or as some put it, it is not 'Asian' to make fun of your leaders. But whose definitions of what is 'Asian', really? Philippines got a book, Medals and Shoes: Political Cartoons of The Times of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, 1965-1992 to account for their lack of 'Asian-ness'. (but that was a nebulous situation as indicated in Dengcoy Miel's account of those times. See the Miel interview elsewhere in these pages) White Orchid Press in Thailand recently came out with a book called Angels and Devils: Thai Politics From February 1991 to September 1992 - A Struggle For Democracy? which contains many political cartoons documenting those times.
Even Malaysia's Lat (who professed not to be a political cartoonist) draws caricatures of Mahathir in his Scenes From Malaysian Life. And our own Morgan Chua used to draw political caricatures for the Far Eastern Economic Review in Hongkong for many years. Finally, 'Red' China came out with its first book of caricatural portraits of scientists and artists in 1988 called Caricatural Portraits of Celebrities. To quote one of the Chinese cartoonists, Ding Cong: "A man should go with some sense of humour, from the starting point of which caricatural portrait should be viewed."

So what makes the political cartoon so disliked? Precisely because of the inherent satirical nature of the medium which lends itself to social criticism. It can swing both ways. A good political cartoon is so rich that you can read into it or rather the politicians being caricatured will read into it, fear it and do something about it.


For example, this cartoon by Tan Huay Peng, which appeared in the 2 May 1959 edition of The Straits Times. (see Illustration 1) Singapore's first general election, which set it on the path of self-government, was on the 30th of that month whereby the People's Action Party (PAP) came into power. This cartoon showed a boxing ring filled with political candidates trying to punch out each other. Singapore's future Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was seen sitting on the left hand side of the ring, enjoying the fight among his political opponents. Now this cartoon can be viewed as reflecting public opinion of that time. That an easy victory awaited the PAP due to the collapse of the PAP opposition alliance because of their internal political infighting. But political cartoons, by its very form, can within a single panel provide different perspectives of an event or person that can be equally valid.

Another interpretation of Peng's caricature of Lee Kuan Yew is that it showed him smirking in the corner as a political opportunist, taking full advantage of the political confusion among the other candidates at that time.

To quote Murray Edelman in From Art to Politics: How Artistic Creations Shape Political Conceptions: "art is often ironic respecting (power) groups and institutions; it readily challenges platitudes and questions moral ambiguity (by) visibly constructs realities and so demonstrates how easily that can be done, raising doubts that orthodox interpretations of the social world should be regarded as the only valid ones." And this is what political cartoons can do - providing an alternative glimpse of reality beneath the surface of things.

THE $50,000 'JOKE'

Here's another example, a more recent one from The Straits Times, 1 September 1995. (see illustration 2) By this time, political cartoons in the newspapers do not contain caricatures of local politicians. This cartoon by Tien Chung Ping illustrates the new government policy of granting $50,000 housing loan to couples who applied for a flat near their parents' homes. Basically, it is a non-critical depiction that attempts to shape public opinion at the same time. The page boy holding the tail end of the bride's dress at the right hand side of the cartoon is saying, "…and they lived happily ever after", indicating the advantages of adhering to this policy. Such a harmonious portrayal of the extended family could be seen as a reflection of the government policy of promoting social cohesion and Asian values by encouraging three-tier families to stay close to each other, an objective this special loan hoped to promote. Thus the cartoon is not commenting, merely reflecting, ie. a visual representation of a new HDB policy.

But precisely because it is a comic representation that interpretations arise. The parents in this cartoon think the new policy is a good thing. So do the newly weds. But why? Because it saves them money and they can dump their crying babies on the in-laws as shown in the thought balloons of the couples? So is this a critique on the materialism of yuppie couples, of the hardcore pragmatism of young Singaporeans? That they can be so bloody realistic about marriage and family? Therefore, is "…and they lived happily ever after" being ironic? This is just one reading of the cartoon, which if you ask the cartoonist himself, he may not even be aware of such undercurrents going on in such a simple cartoon of his. But when I proposed this reading to some junior college students a few months ago, they agreed to the viability of the argument.


A final example to show the richness and enjoyment of interpretation one can find in a political cartoon. To Tame A Tiger: The Singapore Story (1995) by Joe Yeoh retells the PAP story in comic book form, using political caricatures. It is the story of Singapore's fight for independence via the PAP's struggle with the communists. It is filled with the PAP Old Guard's personal anecdotes taken from the books of Alex Josey and Dennis Bloodworth. The result: a rather one-sided view of the events.

The problem is when such personal stories are tapped uncritically for a popular rendition of the past, these anecdotes become popular history, part of the nation's collective memory. I see it as part of an unconscious mythologising process by equating the Singapore story as the PAP story which is, by default, the Lee Kuan Yew story. Lee is the central character in the book.

The 'story' is framed as an adventure - to quote the synopsis at the back cover of the book: "The struggle for Singapore - a sensational saga of conspiracy and betrayal, conflict and courage…an adventure you could not imagine!" By presenting the events in an adventure genre mode of storytelling, the implication is that this is the only version of how things happened in the '50s and 60s - the PAP account of things. Thus no room or space for other 'stories' or heroic figures to be re-evaluated or revived from that era? (Actually, a new book that is coming out might do just that. The Lieutenants of Singapore: Lee Kuan Yew's Old Guards, forthcoming from Allen & Unwin. Featuring a chapter on 'The Vanquished: Lim Chin Siong and a progressive national narrative' by Wee Wan-Ling.)

Just as the image immediately conjured up by the title, To Tame A Tiger is the adventure story of 'Wusong Ta Hu' in the Chinese classic, Water Margin. The image of Lee Kuan Yew with his hand pulled back ready to strike the tiger on the cover of book is an identical image of that heroic portrayal. (see Illustration 3) The association is obvious. Lee is portrayed to be as heroic as Wusong, one of the 108 heroes in Water Margin who fought against the corrupt officials (the British colonists in this context?) in dynastic China.

If one is to follow the standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero, as identified by Joseph Campbell in The Hero With A Thousand Faces, it is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: Separation - Initiation - Return. Campbell has named as the nuclear unit of the monomyth.

The story goes: A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder. Fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won. The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow men. Such a structure can be used to look at how the Singapore story is told in To Tame A Tiger. A 19 year old Lee encountered the Japanese invaders during the occupation of Singapore and survived the experience. (the cruel Japanese soldiers were often portrayed as demonic and supernatural) With the defeat of the Japanese, Lee was able to continue his law studies at Cambridge University in the UK (involving the journey required of the hero). Thus empowered (a victory won), he returned to Singapore to fight for its independence (bestowing boons on his fellow men).
Such a mode of storytelling of using a popular medium like cartoons promotes its own discourse of how Singapore gained its independence or who were the heroes in such an epic. It has the danger of becoming a folk tale that is supposed to be passed down from one generation to the next, an account that gathered its own momentum of magnitude and self-importance that after a while, no one bothers to re-evaluate its significance and accuracy. For example, has anyone questioned recently whether is James Dean really that great an actor? That rebel without a cause has been co-opted and become a folk figure.

After all, literary critics have acknowledged historical narratives to constitute part of the discourse of history. Such a discourse can be viewed as functioning as a discourse of ideology and power in society because of its posited didactic truth value. The story plots or tropes which metahistorian Hayden White identified in all history narratives to constitute as schematic structures are employed by men to understand social phenomenon in the world. Therefore the linguistic form of history (ie. the prosaic narratives in Josey or Bloodworth's accounts of the past) can thus be a realisation of the implicit ideological meaning of the society. Critical reading of what happened in the past is essential to heighten the awareness that the past is constructed from the present structure and that the past is an unstable reality. (see The Language of History Narrative: Its Ideology and Implications, an unpublished English honours thesis from National University of Singapore, 1995/96)

If the written word of history is exposed to such dangers of unconscious manipulation, what more the illustrated form which could only be more problematic because it combines pictures and words. And whether the artist knows it or not, the political caricatures in To Tame A Tiger, despite its conservative leanings, illustrate this best. Again, because of the inherent richness of the political cartoon medium, space is created for contesting interpretations and readings. It creates contentions.

On the cover of To Tame A Tiger, Lee Kuan Yew is "riding the tiger", a strategy the PAP Old Guard formulated to harness the only force capable then of mobilising the public towards independence - the communists. It was a potentially Faustian pact which the PAP managed to come up tops as illustrated in the superior positioning of Lee, holding the party lightning symbol in the picture. Worker Party's David Marshall is shown in a less advantageous position holding his party hammer while the Labour Front's Lim Yew Hock is 'taking cover' at the side with his trident-looking party symbol. The communists, Fong Swee Suan and Lim Chin Siong, are identified with their red star symbol and are underneath the tiger.

The key players in this dramatic conflict are identified through the use of caricatures and symbols. But political cartoons also make use of popular images from myths, legends, folklores and literature. Namely, one can see the identification of Lee with the Greek God, the almighty Zeus in his pose with the bolt of lightning in his hand, pulled back and ready to strike. The lightning bolt being the weapon/symbol of Zeus, the thunder god. Zeus is also the father of other gods in Olympus just as Lee is known to be the father of modern day Singapore. According to Greek legends, Zeus fought against the tyranny of the Titans and brought about a new era of golden age in Greece. The Titans could be alluded to the British colonists. Cronus the Titan, father of Zeus, wanted to kill his children, Zeus and his siblings. But Zeus survived and fought back, eventually killing his own father. Pushing this association, Lee can said to be a 'son' of the British empire, being a product of the British educational system, having studied in the UK. But having being empowered by the British, (just as Zeus is borne from Cronus' loins) Lee turned around and 'drove' out the British, an act akin to the slaying of the tyrannical father figure in Greek legends.

David Marshall, on the other hand, reminds one of Thor, the Norse god of thunder, with his hammer, also ready to strike. Now here's the rub: although one figure is dominant over the other, but since both are thunder gods, wouldn't that seem to suggest that both have equal legitimate claims to be the founding father of independent Singapore? After all, Marshall was Singapore's first Chief Minister in 1955. The caricature of Lim Yew Hock holding his 'trident' reflects further political contentions. The trident is the symbol/weapon of Poseidon, lord of the seas and brother of Zeus. Lim was Singapore's second Chief Minister in 1956.

The communist tiger is easy to identify as what it is supposed to symbolised. But tiger is also the national symbol of Malaysia. So who were the 'real' enemy in those turbulent times when Singapore was 'kicked' out of Malaysia in 1965? The artist could be reflecting the sense of 'betrayal' and dislocation people of his generation felt then. Unconscious but manifested in the drawing.

Thus even the cover of a comic adaptation of mainstream political history (Yeoh has received a letter of commendation from President Ong Teng Cheong for his book as well as approval from BG Lee Hsien Loong) can be filled with so much contentions and interpretations. This is what makes political cartoons so volatile, its inherent qualities for satire.

And this is the reason why it is frown upon in some societies. The reader is empowered in his or her engagement with the political cartoon. It is a personal and highly politicised moment of involvement. Personal because, in the end, it is your own reading of the cartoon that counts, that will formulate your opinions of certain politicians or policies. It is political because, in many ways, all choices made are political. There is a sense of heighten awareness. Cartoons don't just raise the issues, but as a result of interpreting the cartoon, one is raising issues within oneself. As you work out the cartoon in your own mind, the formulations of interpretations, it is a political act at its most primal kind.

Perhaps promoting political cartoons as an artform, as visual arts will eventually lead to the politicisation of the arts. For political cartoons to have any importance within mainstream culture or to have an impact on society, you would need a certain level of politicisation of the people. Which may not be a bad thing if having a vibrant civil society is a way to ensure the regenerative powers of a nation and its citizens. And if political cartoons can have a role in raising the collective consciousness of a people, and if that isn't art, then I don't know what is.

A shorter version of the above paper was presented at the New Criteria VI talks at the Substation on 5/5/98.

For more on local political cartoons, see "Singapore Political Cartooning' in The Arts Magazine (March/April '98)


Heading 2